Isn¿t Scientific American foolish to spell out the ingredients of sarin?
November 5, 2001
This question has three parts:
First, could we be helping potential terrorists? The answer is clearly no. A terrorist capable of actually undertaking the chemical synthesis would already know the full recipe from any number of websites or scientific papers. "There¿s nothing secret about this," Tour says. "The word is out and has been out." In fact, compared to some of these sources, the information we give here is actually pretty minimal. We say nothing about what to do with the reagents or how to handle the caustic solutions that are the intermediate products.
Second, even if the ingredients are widely known, might we be giving people ideas? Unlikely. The terrorists and nutcases of the world have shown no want of ingenuity. This article is no likelier to inspire them than any other article on security lapses would. An article on the events of September 11 might, we suppose, be construed as a guidebook for hijacking airplanes, but we prefer to think of it as information we need to protect ourselves.
Finally, even if the above is all correct, what¿s the point of giving the information? The fact is that these and other chemicals will have to be on the list of substances that are somehow monitored or regulated. They must therefore be a matter of public record. (They already are, for export controls.) Moreover, putting a name to these chemicals demonstrates that nerve agents can be made from commercially available materials. That realization may instill some urgency into policymakers, who have ignored the warnings of Tour and others for years.